How the candidates' speaking styles play
McCain is unscripted. Obama is soaring. In these times, both styles have their advantages.
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"The more flowery Obama gets, the less you trust him," says Jeanie Smith, a Portsmouth social worker who was a Hillary Rodham Clinton supporter and is now torn between Obama and McCain. Leaving the gymnasium here after McCain's visit Wednesday, she signaled approval of the Arizona senator's regular-guy banter. "Straight and direct," she said.Skip to next paragraph
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McCain excels at the give-and-take with voters in town meetings and other intimate settings, where his unvarnished musings and grasp of policy detail play well. As far back as 2000, he branded his campaign bus the Straight Talk Express because of the free-wheeling gab sessions with journalists aboard, a rarity in an age of heavily managed access to presidential candidates.
But in larger venues and in speeches, McCain's rhetorical style can sound like – as the Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert recently put it – "tired mayonnaise." His yen for the prefatory "my friends" can weary. His body language – a smile after sternly pledging to follow Osama bin Laden to "the gates of hell" – can seem incongruous and ill-timed. His jokes often sound recycled, and his tongue is prone to slips, as when he promised earlier this month to "veto every single beer" – instead of bill – "with earmarks."
As part of a campaign shake-up last week, McCain handed more authority to aides keen on punching up his messages and sharpening his stagecraft. But in his 20-minute speech in Portsmouth, before opening the floor to questions, McCain seemed to spend more time staring down at a set of notes on a waist-high music stand than he did making eye contact with the audience.
In his days at Harvard Law School, Obama listened to recordings of sermons and internalized the cadences of the black church, with their patterns of call and response and repetition of finely wrought phrases. The Illinois senator sprinkles speeches with "we" and "you" – "Yes we can" and "you have done what the cynics said we couldn't do" – as if he were as much guiding a movement as running for president.
It is a style well-suited to large venues but one that has faltered elsewhere. Senator Clinton, his former rival for the Democratic nomination, was generally viewed as the stronger debater, because of her command of policy minutiae and a better ability to seem resolute in the face of persistent questioning.
Obama's soaring oratory was also less successful than Clinton's more grounded policy specifics at connecting with working-class voters more worried about making ends meet than making history.
"With a lot of people in our state and in Ohio and West Virginia, there was this missing connection Obama had in the primaries that was palpable," says G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, in Lancaster, Pa.